Skyping Your Way Into (or Out of) a Faculty Job

I have been on a cross-departmental search committee, and it’s been a ton of work. Over the last few weeks, I have taken part in a number of Skype interviews, and it blows my mind how poorly the people who look really good on paper perform on these interviews. While my department alone hasn’t done Skype interviews in the past, I am going to strongly advocate that we start. The main reason is that Skype enables us to see in person many more candidates than we otherwise would, which is really important, since so far the best ones have been those you would not necessarily put in the top 3-5, but would in the top 20-30. Being able to access a broader pool before doing the more expensive campus interviews has the potential to do wonders for obliterating the pedigree bias.

The interviews we do last about 15-20 min, but can go up to 30 min, and I think that’s a very good duration.

Here are some common pitfalls.

1. I know some people don’t like it when I mention this, but it’s important for all non-native speakers of English out there trying to get a faculty job in the US (or any other job that requires specialization and/or an advanced degree, especially if it pays well):

You have to work on your English. I know it may be hard and it’s much easier to converse in the native language, especially if you are in one of the labs where your advisor is from your home country and all your advisor’s collaborators, postdocs, and other graduate students are from the same country, too. I can understand that it may feel like speaking English is unnecessary… But that’s a dangerous lie. Such labs fail students in a key aspect of professional development to a degree that I feel is abusive — what else do you call a situation in which an advisor prevents his or her students from acquiring critical skills necessary for success?

It is not enough to be “sort of” fluent. You have to be able to express yourself as well as you would in any other language. You have to be so fluent that you can make strong, succinct, and grammatically correct statements; you have to be so fluent that you can use idioms, and make jokes, and understand jokes, and perceive nuances in the response of others. You have to be able to be your complete self in English; if you are excited about research, you have to speak English well enough, with good enough diction, that the brilliance and enthusiasm can effectively come across, rather than struggle to break through the barrier erected by your lack of facility with the language.

You have to be completely fluent. Both your vocabulary and your command of grammar should be comparable to those of a native speaker with the same level of education, because that is who you are competing against; today, it’s for faculty jobs; tomorrow, it’s for grants and awards. 

So work on your English tirelessly, from the minute you arrive in the US. Devour written and spoken English, and dissect it like the scientist that you are: Why did this native speaker say that? What does this idiom mean and when should you use it? Are your verbs and yours nouns/pronouns in agreement? Do you use punctuation correctly?

You may not be able to completely get rid of your accent (I imagine I have less of an accent than I do; only when I hear a recording of myself is when I do hear that some of my sounds are sharper or otherwise a little off with respect to what they should be in American English). However, becoming more fluent means that your diction will also improve, and you will get better at enunciation overall. The quest to improve your English should never stop.

2. This faculty search is broad enough that, for many candidates, I don’t know the technical nitty-gritty of the research projects, but you bet I can tell whether the person answers precisely and succinctly, whether they are at the top of their game, and whether they are persuasive enough in their communication to be able to get recognition for their work and effectively raise grants. When you drone on, in painful monotone, about the technical minutiae during your Skype interview, so that most of the committee no longer looks at you but at their phones or laptops, you are dead in the water; you are never getting that campus interview.

(Bonus: Do not freakin’ read your research statement to us straight from the computer screen, pretending that you are answering a question. Yes, we can tell you are reading; remember, we see your face blown up to 3 feet tall on the conference-room screen. We can tell by how your eyes are moving from left to right, by how unnaturally even your speaking tempo is, and by the sharp drop in the quality of your spoken language when you go off the script.)

3. Many people could not articulate what they had done in the past that was important. They couldn’t tell where their work had made an impact and how. Some did not understand what we were asking (even after three committee members took turns trying to rephrase the question somewhat; see the need for facility with the language) or were pretending not to understand in order to bide the time while figuring out what to say. Others were only ever able to talk about the minutiae, showing that, while they are good as “doers,”i.e., as someone who can execute the grand vision of others, they are not likely to develop a vision of their own.

4. Many people could not articulate what their plans were for the next 5 years beyond “I will do this (one paper’s worth), and then maybe I will do that (another paper’s worth).” They could not tell how they would be different from everything that their postdoc and PhD advisors did.

We are not interviewing your advisor, or you as a postdoc. We want a person who can stand on their own two feet, who has scientific curiosity and drive, and who has enough maturity to understand what this job entails. You need to have thought about who you want to be, and what you want to do, and what you need to get there.

The other day we interviewed a guy who didn’t seem to take this job application business seriously at all. He had no clue where he would apply for funding, didn’t seem to be able to see past the next couple of papers, overall conveyed  that he had no idea what the job would actually be, yet seemed quite confident that he’d be coming to an on-campus interview (as in, “I will ask all my questions during the on-campus interview”). We were all amused by how clueless the candidate was.

You have to take the job search — any job search — seriously.

5. You have to be able to answer why this job, assuming you want it, is a good fit for you. Which facilities would you be able to use, what equipment would you would need to buy? Who are your potential collaborators on campus?

6. You have to have some questions for the interviewers. The prepared candidates asked perfectly reasonable questions about the startup package, tenure expectations,  teaching load, and advising students from different departments (my campus is great about that, barriers to interdepartmental or intercollegial advising are really minimal). Depending on the duration of the Skype interview, you may or may not have time for all of these, but be prepared to ask something. If you are serious about the job, you will naturally have questions.

A good PhD and postdoc advisor will be able to help you prepare for interviews, but this is your job search, you need to be proactive about finding information. My PhD advisor did comment — once —  on my research and teaching statements, and gave me some advice when I was comparing competing offers, but everything else I learned on my own, using resources from the web. There are plenty of resources. There were certainly enough online resources even when I was applying for jobs in late 2003 (interviewed early 2004), over a decade ago. There is a ridiculous amount of information available now (like here!). There is no excuse to be uninformed.

As I said, many of the people who looked best on paper ended up interviewing poorly. Those who rose to the top and will be coming to campus in January were not all native speakers, but were certainly perfectly fluent and had no problems with listening comprehension. They were able to answer the above questions clearly and persuasively, and came across as enthusiastic, energetic, and just ready to conquer the world. The ones who rose to the top were the ones with whom the whole committee was engaged throughout the interview; they conveyed their infectious love of science and cut the time-wasting bull$hit.

Good luck to everyone on the job market!

26 comments

  1. I recently was involved in an interview where the interviewee had terrible English. Just when you thought he was finished, he would say, “and also,” before starting again into some incomprehensible monologue. It led to much eye rolling from the committee. It was a phone interview, and I got to the point that I was laughing (silently) that I was in tears. I felt so bad for the person, but it honestly was one of the worst interviews I’ve ever gone through. I’m just glad I was able to hold it together enough not to laugh out loud.

  2. I spent two days this week involved in interviews as well. I could say most of the same (except the English one!) Our front runner on paper was ABYSMAL, and here’s a hint: put the computer some place it doesn’t shake. Seriously.

  3. This is wonderful advice. I can envision that some advisors won’t want to or can’t see to address some of these issues (like English fluency or the questions for the interviewers). The candidate who said he’d save his questions for the on-campus made me chuckle: there’s a line between confident and delusional.

  4. Do you give your candidates the questions beforehand? I have seen this, and find it somewhat disrupting – I ended up giving half-prepared, half-improvised answers that seemed a lot more awkward than on-the-fly answers.

    Sometimes the advice people give seems to highlight somewhat superficial stuff. (It is hard to make the distinction between fluency and slickness when you are reading this sort of advice.) I might emphasize that, if you can convey your ideas and have thought about the position, a little awkwardness or even longwindedness isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. After two of my Skype interviews, I felt profoundly awful that I had been blathering rather than coherent. But these led to on-site interviews (and in fact, offers!).

    I guess if you’re not sure how you’re perceived, it’s worth doing a practice round with friends.

  5. @Rheophile
    I prefer to provide questions to candidates if possible, unless the committee is only asking super obvious questions like tell us about your research directions and what will you teach. If the committee wants to ask some questions that pertain to something specific to the University or job in question, it seems only fair to give the candidates a chance to prepare.

  6. “You may not be able to completely get rid of your accent” – I would go beyond this and say you *will not* get rid of your accent. I don’t think anyone who learns a second language after puberty can ever speak without some accent. BUT, lots of people with accents speak very fluently and eloquently (Joseph Conrad was one of the greatest English novelists but always spoke English with a heavy Polish accent), so as long as people can understand you easily, don’t feel self-conscious about the accent!

  7. …and on your interview, you can ask different people the same question! They will give different answers anyway so you might as well hear them. And that way, when people ask you if you have questions, you won’t be tempted to say, “no.”

  8. I got in person interviews at both places where I got a skype interview first. So apparently I didn’t screw up too much.

    Kinda wish the one place that flew me out had done this. Cuz I think it would have become clear I wasn’t a good fit without wasting everyone’s time/money. Then again it was fun to visit I suppose?

    I did a phone conference interview at one place which didn’t go so well. I felt really akward, not being Able to gauge people’s reactions to what I was saying.

    One funny anecdote – I got to one of the Skype places for in person interviews and had one meeting in the room where they’d done the Skype interview. I was horrified by how HUGE the screen was. Ack! Meanwhile I had been squinting and leaning in to try to see people’s faces on my tiny laptop screen. I must have looked pretty silly!

  9. Ugh – the title of this post hit me in the feels. I just Skype interviewed for my dream job at my dream university… and it did not go well. My answers were not nearly as specific or focussed as I would have liked. But then I read the rest of this post, and I guess it at least didn’t go *as* poorly as what you’ve described. So maybe there is still hope?

  10. @Rheophile: It is hard to make the distinction between fluency and slickness… I might emphasize that, if you can convey your ideas and have thought about the position, a little awkwardness or even longwindedness isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker.

    Definitely! A little bit of nervousness and awkwardness are expected and even charming — it also means you want the position! And we definitely see through the slickness and other types of BS (we also discuss among ourselves for about 10 min after each interview). A highly ranked candidate on paper was slick, but he conveyed great personal ambition (as in, he wants to rule the world), which is not a bad thing in its own right, but in his case it came with very little regard or excitement about the science (as in, yeah, sure, I will also do some science on my inevitable ascent to 50-person-lab-by-end-of-tenure-track greatness, but I don’t particularly want to talk about the specifics of what I will do). OTOH, one person who will be coming to the on-site interview was a non-slick, non-native speaker, but he was fluent (with an accent); most importantly, he was excited and very knowledgeable about his science. He has a really cool and fairly unique technique and has great ideas what to do with it, and how exactly he will interface with other people on campus; the questions he plans to ask are very important, open, and broad enough to keep him well funded for a number of yeas and help him make a name for himself.

  11. I really thought you were going to say that it blows your mind how poorly people actually look in person, who otherwise look good on paper. But I guess I’m sensitive. I am plenty articulate, but I think I look like a hideous troll on Skype, and I dread Skype interviews of all types.

  12. anon at 9:58 PM: “how poorly people actually look in person”

    It has honestly never crossed my mind that anyone whom we interviewed over Skype looked bad. Everyone is just a giant head over Skype, and that’s expected. By the way, how bad can anyone in their late 20’s or their 30’s look? People, you are so young. Sooooo young. Young people do not look bad, even though they often think they do (I did too, and it was a stupid misguided royal waste of time and energy; I looked great). Anon, you do not look bad over Skype, I guarantee.

    But now that you have me thinking about how people looked, I think I had fun noticing their various surroundings. Most people interviewed in their postdoc or similar offices. Some obviously used their laptops, which is probably not ideal if you are self-conscious (more below). Most people were in their regular clothes and looked presentable. Several had suits on, which in hindsight was not a bad thing, sort of like “dress for the job you want,” or, in this case, “dress for the on-campus interview you want”.

    Now that I think of it, it may be a good idea to *not* do a Skype interview as you would Skype with your personal friends. Get somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, with a neutral background; use a desktop if possible, with a good camera, microphone, and speakers; that will prevent you from having to stare at a tiny screen somewhere down there at a weird angle to the the vertical. If you are self-conscious about how you look, desktop with a camera on top of a large screen versus laptop where you look downward may be all you need to eliminate the triple chin or whatever else you hate about your look while skyping; using a separate camera atop your desktop monitor also enables you to not have to be super close to it, so your face will look less distorted. Also, put on the clothes in which you feel serious and confident. Sure, dress up! All performers and athletes have routines that help them get their head in the game, find what’s yours. There is nothing wrong with tweaking the setup and the visuals at your end if that will make you feel more confident. I can’t tell how these things affect the committee, but perhaps all these details do add up to a subliminally more polished vibe. Certainly, feeling more confident and composed helps you seem more confident and composed.

    tl;dr: You have my blessing to dress up and invest in good peripherals for skyping. Not necessary, but probably not hurting, and likely helping, especially if they make you feel more in control. Good luck!

  13. What are your thoughts on Skype vs phone interviews for screening the pool to get finalists for on campus interviews? I don’t feel like the body language adds much in the way of positive or useful information. But I do wonder in the back of my mind if I stereotyped one or two people.

  14. Anon for this one, that’s a good question. I would say Skype is better, mostly because it’s a one vs many situation. (Btw, some Skype interviews will record the audio for the committee people who couldn’t be there, and that’s much like doing it over the phone for them). I think the visual component is more important for the candidate than for the committee. I think it’s very hard to keep track of who is asking you what by voice alone when you don’t know any of the several people who are interviewing you, and the committee probably seems much more intimidating when you don’t see them.

    I have been on a committee in a professional organization and we do phone teleconferences. It’s a zoo, even though I already know the people and can mostly tell who’s talking, and we’re not even evaluating one another. Honestly, I think phone is best when there are no more than 1 or 2 people whom you cannot see at the other end.

  15. “By the way, how bad can anyone in their late 20’s or their 30’s look? People, you are so young. Sooooo young.”

    Because older folks would never apply for a TT Asst. prof. job, eh? I guess ageism is alive and well in the Academy! Good to know….

  16. Also, at what kind of an interview would you ever get the questions beforehand? What is the point of that?

  17. @xykademiqz: It is not trolling to notice and point out the unspoken assumptions of those on the hiring committee — assumptions that become all too clear with offhand comments like yours. I wish it weren’t so, but the fact that this rolled so easily off your tongue, as it were, makes it pretty transparent that your mental image of a TT faculty candidate is “sooooo young.” To me this is just as distressing as if someone had said soooo white or soooo male or soooo thin — others things that I am not and which have no effect on my ability to do the job. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’d be outraged if you heard comments like that from your peers on the committee, because it’s just wrong, isn’t it, to discriminate against people like that?

    Well, guess what, ageism is against the law, too.

  18. Our department has a lot of re-entry grad students, and the older students (who are often the best) have had more trouble getting postdocs and faculty interviews. The sample from one department is too small to be statistically significant, but I believe that there is some age bias in faculty searches.

  19. Old Anon, in the comment you are referring to, I was trying to make anon feel better about thinking they look bad when skyping, and chances are they are very young with respect to me. I am not denying that there are older applicants for TT positions, or that there is implicit bias against any deviation from the norm (gender, age, appearance, etc.).

  20. Old Anon: the questions in skype interviews are often so generic that it might make sense to distribute them beforehand, so you don’t have any contrast between people who have been told what the typical questions are and those who have not. I imagine it also helps standardize the interviews across many many people, so if you miss some information on one person, it is the fault of the interviewee and not the interviewer. May also help keep the time down (15 min/applicant rather than 30…)

    In one case, the questions were “Why do you want to work at X? What are the projects for your first three students at X? and Who would be your first collaborator at X?” This was at a top-5 Fancy Pants University.

  21. Xyk, original anon here. I am, in fact, looking 50 in the face. Your reply that assumed I was in my 20s or 30s made me lol. Old anon needs to lighten up, but I do think appearance and age play a huge role in interviews, especially for women. And it seems so much worse on Skype than by phone (obviously) or in person interviews, maybe because of that little box that shows your image (which I cover up) or maybe because all the other social cues are missing that would otherwise distract you. I hate them!

    Happy New Year!

  22. @original anon: “Old anon needs to lighten up….”

    Oh, what a classic! Am I taking things too seriously, being too emotional, or getting hysterical? Do you tell people who point out sexism and racism that they should “lighten up,” too?

    Seriously, for someone pushing 50, you should know better….

  23. Old Anon, you have made a valid point that ageism is an issue in academia. But please don’t attack my other commenters like this, for that leads nowhere productive (and also means your comments will be moderated from now on).

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